French and Dutch voters have overwhelmingly rejected the European Union constitution. Is it a sign that the motor of integration has sped out of control?
Though opinion polls taken before the referendum predicted a resounding Non, the French rejection has come as shocking even to the most Euroskeptics. Along with Germany, France has long prided itself as being the heart of the EU; and with the Germans ratifying it in the parliament, French elite will surely feel like the odd one out in the club.
Unfortunately, for the beleaguered constitution, which requires it to be ratified by all 25 member states, France is not the only enfant gâté in an otherwise picture-perfect family. Only days after the French voiced their opposition, the Dutch denounced the constitution by a bigger margin.
It is a common complaint in the small member states of the Euro zone that the faceless EU bureaucrats who run the show from Strasburg do not listen. "I am very pleased at this result and not because I am against a united Europe. It is because of the whole way things were managed, manipulated, not just by our government, but by the authorities in Brussels. The arrogance! Being so sure of themselves without speaking to the people of Europe, deciding for themselves," says Lydia Meist, a Dutch Socialist Party member, and a Nee campaigner.
In fact, be it the decision to take Euro in 1992 or the decision to enlarge EU in 1993, people's opinion was never taken into account. In the Netherlands the referendum has witnessed a marriage between two unlikely ideologies--right wing extremist Pim Fortuyn's Pim Fortuyn Party and the socialists, both campaigned for Nee vote.
Both France and the Netherlands have some things in common -- a poorly performing economy and a deeply unpopular government; in the Dutch case, the most unpopular government on record.
It is no wonder that some of the arguments heard in both countries have been the same. Some, on the other hand, have been the opposite -- French voters lamented their country's diminishing power, while Dutch voters were more likely to complain that the big countries would become stronger under the constitution.
Another problem is that it is too complicated. "The fact is that the constitution is an impenetrable document besides which Da Vinci Code is simplicity itself. I see people doing crosswords and sudoko on the London Underground. I never see anyone reading the draft constitution," Paul Reynolds, BBC's world affairs correspondent says.
Ironically, the constitution was meant to make things simple for EU citizens, who the Euphiles believed, had distanced themselves from the union.
"The supporters of a more integrated Europe can point to the ambition as a good thing; critics can point to its ambition as a bad thing; and the folk in the middle find that this is neither wholly one thing or the other," he continues.
Apart from its inherent ambiguity, the constitution has drawn widespread criticism for trying to impose new laws that small nation states are weary about implementing on their own citizens.
One of the English fears is that British common laws, once the constitution assumes command, will become obsolete. Small countries have some frightening thoughts regarding common currency, and more importantly, about the constitution. A highly liberal country like the Netherlands' refusal to ratify the EU constitution also indicates its fear of losing its years-old cultural identity.
On the economic front, Strasburg is not immune to criticism either. Most of the critics, who are born and brought up in different welfare states, think, in its mad rush towards a United States of Europe, EU has only served the interests of big businesses. No Constitution Rap, one of the theme songs of the pro-Nee camp in the Netherlands, says, "If you want a social Europe and a Europe for the people, not for business and money, say 'No' to the constitution".
In spite of the dual debacles, the EU bosses have remained unperturbed. The union has stuck to its future enlargement plans. Romania and Bulgaria are due to join in 2007, Croatia to follow suit. "The rumours of the death of EU enlargement policy are evidently exaggerated and the enlargement commissioner is not on the dole yet," says Olli Rehn, EU enlargement commissioner.
Though Rehn says Turkey has "made some significant" progress towards the membership of the all-Christian club, French Non also creates a mild tremor in Ankara's European dream. Two names recur through the Turkish nightmare: Nicholas Sarakozy and Angela Markel. Both of them are Presidential and Chancellor hopefuls in France and Germany and are dead against Turkey's EU membership.
Meanwhile, the fate of the bogged down EU constitution remains uncertain. The latest salvo, if not the final one, has come from a likely member -- the United Kingdom. The country has postponed its referendum on the constitution.
The future of the European Union is, however, not at all bleak. "The voters have strongly applied the emergency brake. This is a dramatic intervention, which cannot be dismissed light-heartedly: politicians will have to do some serious soul-searching," a commentary in Trouw, a Dutch daily, says. In this unipolar world, where the US creates its own laws only to break them, a resilient and strong EU is something countries across Asia and Africa have been looking forward to.
With its long-running culture of tolerance and social justice, Europe remains an example of how people get closer for a common cause without losing their own individual beliefs. To make Europe an economic and political powerhouse, the EU has to go back to where it originally belongs -- its own people. And, on this path, the so-called "old Europe" has to lead the union. The world's future is certainly French and European too.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005